Loneliness, depression, and stress: It shouldn't happen to a vet

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The Independent Online

The practice has relocated since Herriot's day to an industrial estate on the outskirts of Thirsk and Julian Norton, one of the vets now running it, has just examined 25 domestic pets in a two-hour morning surgery. For many vets, this is the daily reality: a stressful, often solitary, grind, up against the clock.

A rather startling study published last week, which revealed that vets were nearly four times as likely to commit suicide as the general public, now begins to make a lot more sense.

Mr Norton will begin the afternoon session within a few hours, leaving just enough time to examine some cows which have presented a TB risk 10 miles away in the Vale of York.

Herriot (or Alf Wight, to give the vet-turned-writer his real name) would have made the trip in his Austin Seven and been home for his lunch, as was his habit. Mr Norton will need every extra minute his Subaru can buy him. The idyllic world presented by the television series All Creatures Great and Small has precious little to do with contemporary veterinary reality.

Many vets poison themselves by injecting or swallowing their ready supply of chemicals. The study's figures - 26 vets committed suicide between 1991 and 2000 - don't surprise Mr Norton, 33. He has plenty of pressures.

Take the domestic pets he has just examined. While Alf Wight simply put those who were gravely ill out of their misery, Mr Norton has recently invested £4,000 of a customer's money in chemotherapy to treat a bone tumour in a wolfhound.

"It's like treating a human member of the family," he said. "It places an onerous responsibility on the young vet just starting out, even though it is good to help these animals." The dog is doing well, but some practices have faced career-threatening litigation when things have not worked out.

Domestic pets have become increasingly important to the Skeldale practice, because the number of large dairy cattle herds in the practice's area has fallen by 15 per cent this year, making margins considerably tighter. The practice has even undertaken meat hygiene inspections to bring in the revenue.

"The graduates want to be vets like James Herriot, but what they forget is that Herriot is history," said Alf Wight's son, Jim, whose biography of his father reveals the reality behind the books and television series. Mr Wight, a now semi-retired vet from Skeldale, considers the high IQ of veterinary students to be another key factor in the suicide rate.

"People who commit suicide and get depressed tend to be introspective and conscientious types," he said. It is a view shared by Richard Halliwell of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, author of the new study, who concludes that vets are vulnerable because their demanding training stunts emotional maturity and communication skills.

Mr Wight knew one such individual: a proud veterinary man from nearby York who applied a tourniquet to his arm and rigged up a drip to feed a chemical into his arm to end it all a decade or so ago.

"Mr Herriot" was also well acquainted with depression. He entered the Glasgow veterinary school in 1933 without a single science qualification. He struggled for years to make ends meet and money worries brought on a bout of profound depression in the 1960s.

"I thought for a time he was going to be one of the suicide men," said his son. "Part of the problem was that he kept things bottled up. Until his dying day [10 years ago] there was a part of him we didn't really know."

Austin Kirwan, a vet from Ormskirk, Lancashire, who co-ordinates a helpline for British Veterinary Association members, believes the transition from a university faculty with 500 highly motivated people to a remote practice with two or three vets takes a profound mental toll.

By midday, Mr Norton has his callipers around a decidedly unco-operative 20-month-old cow which is clamped in a narrow pen at Woolpots, a farm where previous vets have included Alf White's partner Donald Sinclair (Siegfried, in the Herriot books).

"These beef cattle don't care much for being handled, but this chap really knows what he's doing," said the farmer, Richard Dennis, nodding at Mr Norton. Were his mind not already set on his next assignment, he might have enjoyed the compliment.